Nov 10, 2013
MURFREESBORO — Todd Foster still carries the camouflage backpack he used while deployed in Afghanistan. Inside it: mementos from war, his iPad, which helps with his memory and notes from every musical therapy session he’s ever been to.
He looks down at his trembling hands when he speaks, sometimes folding his arms against his chest to avoid the shaking.
He’s careful in the way he explains things, always stopping to think before he speaks and always speaking slowly — giving a nod to make sure he’s understood.
After his deployment, he said he can’t help but feel uncomfortable around people he doesn’t know.
But when he talks about his songwriting therapy sessions at the Alvin C. York VA, his eyes light up and his hands become steady.
Once a week on Friday, Foster goes to the VA and meets with seven or eight other veterans, a songwriter and a music therapist, he said. The veterans come in and put down on paper what’s in their head, and the songwriter fleshes it out into a song.
Nearly every person in the class has PTSD, and Foster said the songwriting helps each person in a different way.
“Obviously, we’re not songwriters, so we don’t know how to write a song, but we have stuff we want to talk about,” Foster said. “It doesn’t matter what we want to talk about. It doesn’t have to be the war. ... You get to see your thoughts turn into something. They don’t pressure you, so if I don’t feel like talking about things that I don’t want to talk about, they don’t make me.”
It took Foster a long time to understand that he might be experiencing PTSD, he said. While he had suffered through emotional outbursts and fits of rage, he said talking with a friend who had PTSD finally made him realize he might have the disorder.
“That and a couple of events told me I needed help,” Foster said. “When I first got back, I went back into my civilian job. One of my supervisors kept talking with and distracting my employees, and I had to answer for why the work wasn’t getting done. Well, one day before I knew it, I had that guy up against a wall screaming that I would kill him — and I meant it.”
Foster left his civilian job to work at the National Guard base in Smyrna after he felt like he couldn’t fit in outside of the military, he said.
Everything was different when Foster came home in 2007, he said. His son, and especially his daughter, grew into a rebellious teen stage, and any little thing could set him off.
“I just can’t do the multitasking thing at all anymore,” Foster said. “I mean, I’ve got to stop and do one thing at a time. Otherwise, I just get flustered. It was hard for my family to get used to that. I was never like that before.”
Traditional therapy only angered Foster, he said.
“The shrinks just want to dig in,” Foster said. “But with some people, you can’t just dig in cause you’re going to get reluctance. ... You ain’t open to it. I canceled appointments. I didn’t dig it at all. In the Army, you’re strong, and you don’t give up information and you’re protective or secretive, extremely guarded, and I’m still that way until I know somebody. You can’t just dig in.”
Although Foster’s still engaged in traditional therapy sessions, he said he’s found comfort and safety in his alternative therapy, which pairs cognitive lessons with songwriting.
Chris Conklin, public information officer for the Alvin C. York Campus, said alternative therapy is part of the VA’s attempt to treat the “whole veteran.”
“The value of it is that there’s a synergy that comes from the alternative therapies with the mental-health line,” Conklin said. “So Todd can go to his therapy sessions and get deep into stuff and then go into that music therapy class and really vent what it is and get it out in another way.”
Conklin said PTSD is a “signature wound” of a soldier.
“Anyone can have PTSD,” Conklin said. “But combat veterans especially struggle with it.”
Foster said many in the military will not admit they have symptoms of PTSD because they fear negative consequences.
“I know for a fact because if you say something, they’ll flag you, and you don’t get to stay in,” Foster said. “It really can ruin your career. The only reason I fessed up is because I knew if they flagged me after all the time I’d been in, I’d get a medical retirement.
“That’s the only reason I said it at that time. The other younger guys, they’ll get you a stigma in the units and stuff. ‘Well, we can’t let this guy do this. Or watch out for him, or her or whoever.’”
Foster got his start in the Navy in 1981, enlisting for delayed entry at the age of 17, he said. His uncle was a Vietnam veteran, and Foster’s idol.
“He was gunner on one of the PT boats down the rivers, and I watched him leave and then he came back,” Foster said. “But he was pretty messed up coming back. I mean, mentally. To this day, he still won’t talk to me about the war, but he’s the nicest man under the sun.”
After making his way from California to Nashville in the mid-90s, Foster got a civilian job as a supervisor at Triumph Aerostructures in Nashville. When his company had major layoffs in 2000, a fellow coworker and major in the Army convinced Foster to join the National Guard at the base in Smyrna.
“The next thing I know one drill weekend they needed someone to do sheet metal, and I got hired and got a full-time job out of it,” Foster said.
In 2005, Foster was deployed to Afghanistan as part of R-Troop, the R standing for Rogue, he said. His troop took care of Apache helicopters — he didn’t fly the helicopters, though. He serviced them, loaded ammunition and kept up with their location until they returned.
He spent 18 months in Afghanistan, and almost a of year of that time was spent boots on ground, he said.
“We were stationed in Kandahar, but some of the guys had to go to fort-operating bases, for short times or whatever, few weeks or few months or whatever it is,” Foster said. “You fly on Black Hawks or Chinooks to get there. It’s over all the mountains, and you do get random shots up at you.”
Foster was sent out to fort-operating bases, called FOBs, a few times while in Afghanistan, and he said some of the worst events happened when he was sent to FOBs.
“I lost an extremely good friend, and few others got extremely injured or lost an arm and there’s a lot of stuff that happened over there that’s just bad,” Foster said. “And then, you know, you get mortared every night, and you can wake up with it right next to you. So I don’t sleep. To this day, I have to take sleeping medicine, and that’s just to get to sleep, then it only lasts a couple hours, and so I also use a CPAP machine for sleep apnea. There’s a long list of things I take.
And then my memory. Some days I can’t remember what yesterday was. It’s hard to recollect certain things, and I don’t know why.”
Bart Uselton, who also attends the music therapy class, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966, and was wounded in the Vietnam War in 1968.
Living in Manchester, he had never even heard of Vietnam before the war, he said.
“When we got off of the buses at boot camp,” Uselton said. “They just started yelling at us and telling us, ‘Boys, you’re going to Vietnam to fight a war.’”
Uselton said he lost more than a couple of friends in the war, including some friends he grew up with in Manchester.
Uselton said PTSD did not hit him until 40 years later, “but boy did it hit hard,” he said.
Managing PTSD with music
The songwriting class at the Alvin C. York VA is a fairly new program, said music therapist Tina Haynes, who has been with the VA for 33 years.
But musical therapy for veterans has been around since the 1940s, she said.
“We know music has a profound effect upon us as human beings,” Haynes said. “Not only emotionally, which is what most people think of, but we know it impacts us socially and physically and neurologically, spiritually, cognitively — across many domains.”
Haynes said musical therapy for soldiers with PTSD is often a supplement to traditional therapy, and that many find themselves able to open up in the songwriting class in ways they might not in traditional therapy.
“Music has its time and place,” Haynes said. “We do have to be very careful about the kinds of music we use and for what purposes we’re using it for. Sometimes our veterans come in (with) acute psyche, very emotionally fragile.
“They might not be ready for an emotionally charged song at that time. We do assessments and match the song with the person and match the music with the experience and what the clinical need is with that person.”
Bob Regan, who has written songs for anyone from Hank Williams Jr. to Keith Urban to Reba McEntire, leads the songwriting portion of the class.
He takes notes on his Mac laptop while the veterans talk about their experiences with war or love or friendship.
They tell him what they want out of the song, and he carefully fuses their experiences with his songwriting talent.
“There’s definitely a need for this,” Regan said. “And it works.”
One such song written by the group, "Still Coming Home," clearly outlines the purpose of the songwriting group. The song highlights how many veterans still struggle with their time in a combat zone — even years after returning from war. The lyrics to the song state, "the battles may be over, but they rage on in our hearts."
Foster and Uselton make up only two of the many veterans using music therapy to treat PTSD.
“But I really think if veterans with PTSD understood how much this has helped me,” Foster said. “They might stop and look and find out it could help them too. Honestly, this is has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. When I came home from Afghanistan in 2007, I really wondered how long it would take me to feel like I fit into society again. I’m still figuring out how and when that will happen, but this is a start.”